What attracted me to Yangshuo was not just the idyllic scenery, in fact I came here mainly to photograph the cormorant fishermen. Cormorant fishing was once a successful local industry but sadly it is no longer economical to fish this way. Besides fishing is not allowed on most parts of the Li River now under the government’s renewal and sustainable program. There are only a few fishermen left keeping this skill alive just for tourism and us photographers. These fishermen use the large cormorant birds to dive under water to catch fish. When the birds get a fish, the fishermen bring the cormorant to the boat and remove the fish from its throat which is tied with a cord to prevent the bird from swallowing the fish. On a good day in the past, each cormorant can apparently catch what three fishermen can on their own. We got up at 4 am in order to photograph Grandpa Huang Gao-Hui (黃高輝) who is 70 years old now and used to be a cormorant fisherman in the area. The Li River is so peaceful and quiet during the blue hour before sunrise. We were the only ones there as the sky slowly brightened. Grandpa Huang is still very fit at 70 and he showed us how things were done in the bygone days such as casting the net, paddling the bamboo raft, releasing the cormorant, lighting the gas lamp etc. He told us he has to feed the cormorants before coming out so that they are full and will not want to dive into the water for fish. This way they are happy to just perch on his raft for us to take photos. Grandpa Huang has become a professional fisherman model and he carries with him a crumbling piece of newspaper which shows him as the face of the Canon Mark 5D camera ad. I have never staged any photographs before but I have no choice here if I want to document these last cormorant fishermen with the beautiful karst mountains as the backdrop. It was actually quite fun and I had a wonderful time chatting with Grandpa Huang. He proudly told us that one way or the other, he carries the responsibility of keeping the tradition of the fishermen’s gas lamps burning on the Li River.
Former cormorant fisherman, Huang Gao-Hui, now fisherman model of Li River
Almost all the Li River fishermen have the same surname, Huang, and many of them settled in Xingping area nearly 1,000 years ago. Xingping ancient village has 48 traditional houses dating back to the Qing and Ming dynasties with blue bricks and black tiles, flying eaves, wood carved windows, and horse head walls. We wandered around the small village after our photoshoot before the tourists arrived and even before the shops and cafes opened.
The waterfront of Xingping Village
We arranged for Grandpa Huang Gao-Hui to meet us here by the river.
Entrance to Xingping Ancient Town
Send your future self a postcard
We were told that the most famous fishermen models were brothers Huang Quan-de (黄全德) and Huang Yue-Chuang (黄月创). Elder brother Huang Quan-de, age 87, is now retired and younger brother Huang Yue-Chuang, age 79, now mostly only poses for photos by the pier at 10 yuan a pop unlike our model Grandpa Huang Gao-Hui who comes with his raft and other equipment. We looked for Grandpa Huang Yue-Chuang at the pier and got to speak to him and ask to take his photograph. He told us that he started cormorant fishing when he was 18. He carries in his pocket a piece of paper carefully wrapped in a plastic bag with his name written on it so he can show people how it is properly written. Like the other Grandpa Huang we did the photoshoot with, Grandpa Huang Yue-Chuang also carries with him old magazine and newspaper clippings where he was interviewed and photographed. He told us proudly that he has modeled for photographers from all over the world but nowadays due to his advanced age, he rarely does the full photoshoot with bamboo raft, gas lamps, and net-casting. He takes a public ferry everyday from Xingping Fishing Village to come to town with his two cormorants.
We were originally going to follow Grandpa Huang Yue-Chuang back to his fishing village across the river. However, local police blocked the pier because apparently someone had drowned the day before when the river flooded. Scary stuff!
At 79, I am ashamed to say Grandpa Huang Yue-Chuang walks faster than me while carrying his two cormorants which is by far much heavier than my two cameras! Although he doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as the other Grandpa Huang, he has a very photogenic face and a confident stance with his arm folded and his head held high. Do look for him if you are near the pier in Xingping Village. He is truly one of the last surviving cormorant fishermen of the Li River and I am grateful to have captured him with my camera!
From Yangshuo, we ventured north to Longsheng County to visit the Red Yao tribe and Longji Rice Terraces. Stayed tuned!
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Sounds like a really interesting day. Staged or not, you got some incredible photos!
This is an excellent post! Thanks for documenting the cormorant fishermen with beautiful photos and their stories. I just came back from Yangshuo and photographed grandpa Huang, but I didn’t get his full name like you did. I was googling his full name which brought me to your blog 🙂 You can see my shots of grandpa Huang on my instagram @wengkiong
I loved the time I spent with the two Grandpa Huang’s. Such a wonderful experience being able to capture them before their craft disappeared forever!